By Danny Schrafel
For many Huntington residents, the arrest of Sheldon Leftenant, 22, who stands accused of shooting Second Precinct Officer Mark Collins, may well have been the first they’ve heard of the Tip Top Boyz, a Huntington Station-based street gang of which Leftenant is a purported member.
Second Precinct Sgt. Steven Saar, of the Second Precinct’s gang unit, described the Tip Top Boyz as a “localized group in the Huntington Station area” with approximately 20-25 members ranging in age from 18 to their late 20s.
Gangs like the Tip Top Boyz are frequently involved in the drug trade, ranging from the sale of marijuana to heroin, cocaine and everything in between, the sergeant said.
“That’s how most gangs make their money,” Saar said.
Suffolk County District Attorney Thomas Spota’s description of the gang on March 12 a “vicious” outfit wasn’t far-fetched, according to Saar, a 22-year Suffolk County Police Department veteran who has worked 12 of those years in the Second Precinct.
The Tip Top Boyz, Saar said, were behind a Nov. 17, 2011 shooting in the parking lot of the Lincoln Farms apartment complex near St. Hugh’s Church in Huntington Station. In that case, three young men, who Saar said were members of the rival Eight Trey Crips gang, were sitting a Jeep Grand Cherokee in the parking lot of the apartment complex at 3:19 p.m. Nov. 17, 2011, when as many as a dozen men surrounded the car. Police believe at least two of those men shot into the car, injuring the three occupants.
Leftenant was one of 11 initially charged in connection with that shooting. He pleaded guilty to criminal facilitation and was sentenced to a year in the county jail and five years probation on Nov. 29, 2012.
Other gangs with a foothold in Huntington include MS-13 and the Latin Kings; other legacy gangs include the Southside Posse (SSP), of which the Tip Top Boyz are a spin-off gang of sorts, and Old Station Soldiers (OSS), Saar said.
Except for MS-13, which operates regionally, the local gangs run independently, with little overarching structure. At times, the lines between gangs blur, the sergeant explained.
“Here, you also have guys that are in Tip Top but that are friends with guys in Crips,” Saar said. “There are guys that are integrated with each other, even though they list themselves in separate gangs.”
The other Huntington-area gangs are similar in size to the Tip Top Boyz – small, but destructive. Membership is often borne of a desire to fit in, Saar said.
“It’s just to be part of the crowd that they’re with, who they live near,” Saar said. “Some of them might not have the parent figures around. They have good school districts around them – it’s definitely not the school districts.”
Once a young person is ensnared in a gang’s clutches, prying them out is a great challenge, Suffolk County Police Deputy Inspector Bill Read said. Deputy Commissioner Risco Lewis, a Wheatley Heights resident appointed in the summer of 2012, has made combating recidivism a cornerstone of her tenure.
“Those people that want to get out of the gang system, get out of a life of crime, we want to help them. It’s a challenge,” Read said.
The primary tool police have is enforcement, and officials have stepped up those efforts in recent months.
Since Suffolk County Police launched the Huntington Station Violence Initiative July 30, 740 arrests have been made, and 93 gang members have been cuffed in connection with drug charges, robberies and burglaries, weapons possessions and more, Read said.
Property crime in the Second Precinct is down 21.9 percent, covering larcenies, criminal mischief and smash-and-grab thefts from cars. Add violent crime to that matrix, and the combined property crime-violent crime rate is down 21.2 percent, the deputy commissioner added.
While a number of “high-profile events” have outraged Huntington residents – and rightly so, Read said – those incidents, including the Oct. 12 murder of Maggie Rosales, who was found dead on Lynch Street, are hardly the norm.
“The crime problem, as bad as folks may think it is, is really, really not as bad as their perception,” he said.
School resource officers, however, operate on a sort of middle ground. In South Huntington and Huntington schools, Second Precinct Officer Drew Fiorello provides guidance to the students, serves as a liaison between the school districts and headquarters, makes presentations, and, as needed, handles law-enforcement matters.
In both buildings, Fiorello has become an integral, respected fixture.
“He does an unbelievable job with the kids,” Read said.
While police focus on enforcement, Read said a social approach is most effective in starving gangs of membership.
The Tri CYA, which operates three facilities throughout Huntington, administers the Community And Students Together (CAST) program, an intensive effort funded in part by Suffolk County to steer at-risk kids away from gangs, said Tri CYA Regional Director Debbie Rimler. County funding increased by $14,000, to $50,000 for 2015, an effort pushed by Legislator William Spencer (D-Centerport).
CAST receives referrals from schools and other agencies, identifying fifth- to ninth-graders who show risk factors of becoming a gang member. It might be family members involved in a gang, a sudden onset of truancy at school or behavior issues.
The voluntary program incorporates intensive home visits and shadowing in school, but most important, Rimler said, is to work with the youth and their family to unearth and cultivate their strengths and passions.
“Some of the skills they might have… if directed in a positive manner, could take them far,” Rimler said.
In addition to CAST, Tri CYA offers an array of services to enrich the lives of students, including drop-in services, homework help, boys and girls groups, cooking, karate and dance classes and even a robotics team.
If they’re faced with a need they can’t meet, Tri CYA is linked to Town of Huntington Youth Bureau services, including drug and alcohol services and the Sanctuary homeless and runaway program.
“The youth that come here, they have a place to go every day. They have people to talk to, people to listen to them,” Rimler said.